– What was your offence?
– Receiving stolen property.
– And who is with you?
– I have one girl, seven, one girl, ve, one boy, nine, and one boy, three years old.
– Where are your other children?
– I have two sons gone to Sydney to settle there as gentlemen, John, aged twenty-one, and Moses, eighteen.
– And where is your husband?
– My husband I believe has gone to America.
– And who is your husband?
Silence.
– Is he not Ikey Solomon of whom so much lately has been heard?

In this city of ghosts I used often to see him, walking the streets, climbing the hills, an elderly man, erect and whippet-thin, with a grizzled beard, slippers and a long greatcoat. A tramp and yet not quite a tramp, he had a de ant dignity and an indifference to others as if he moved through a world of his own. I christened him Ikey and found his presence on the streets talismanic. Then I had an unexpected encounter with him. It was a gloomy Monday morning, as though the world were lit by a few dim lamps, when there was a knock on my door and I was surprised to discover the man I called Ikey waiting outside. In his hands he had a package. He told me in a distinctly patrician voice that it had been delivered to the wrong address. ‘Here’ he announced, handing it to me, ‘I have done the due diligence’.

I thanked him, but he lingered in the doorway, reluctant to re-enter the rain.

He didn’t look the best, either. His face was as pale as the day, he smelled slightly of claret and there was a cut on the side of his head. ‘Do you mind if I have a cup of coffee?’ he inquired. I invited him in and there heard how he’d been going all weekend and had come home to find himself locked out by his ‘African mistress’ and my mail in his letterbox. He then asked me what I did and I replied that was a complicated question. He laughed and said, ‘I can seen you’re a cool fellow, Konrad.’ And it was while we were talking that I confessed to him that I used to see him on the streets and privately called him Ikey after the inspiration for Dicken’s Fagin.

‘I know who he is,’ he assured me. ‘And he’s buried down the hill in the old Hobart Jewish cemetery. You ought to look him up’.

I made him another coffee. He left when the rain lifted.

***

The real Ikey Solomon was born in Houndsditch around the year 1785. Now largely forgotten in the city of his birth, the so–called Prince of Fences was sensationalised in his day as the most notorious London criminal since Jonathan Wild. Pamphlets then hawked on London’s streets give some sense of his piquancy. The title page of one concoction of fact and steamy fantasy reads, ‘ONLY CORRECT EDITION! The Life and Exploits of IKEY SOLOMON, Swindler, Forger, Fencer, and BROTHEL-KEEPER’ and promises, ‘Accounts of Flash and Dress Houses, Flash Girls And Coves on the Watch, Now on the Town: With Instructions How to Guard against Hypocritical Villains And the Lures of Abandoned Females’. Even fifty years after his death, the receipt of stolen goods at a fixed price by item was a transaction still known in London as ‘an Ikey’. It was Ikey’s celebrated trial at the Old Bailey in the summer of 1830 that appears to have piqued the interest of the young Charles Dickens, and (besides his Jewish- ness) is the central fact behind the now standard identification of Ikey as the model for the monstrous Fagin. However, it is the contrast between fact and fiction that yields the richer vein.

The Fagin we know and love was an avaricious old skeleton, with yellow fingers, matted red hair and a repulsive leer; Ikey, by contrast, was tall, dark, and possibly handsome. Fagin dressed in greasy tattered garments; Ikey wore the apparel of a successful businessman. Fagin was a work of crime in minor key, lifting ‘wallets and wipes’ through his troupe of child pickpockets; Ikey was the greatest London receiver of his day – there are stories of entire warehouses of stolen goods being bought by him, and The Times reported he walked the streets of London with a thousand quid in his side-pocket for on-the-spot purchases, including of the watches he especially prized. But it is in the dominant motif of their respective lives that the greatest discrepancy emerges. For Isaac Solomon’s central act was not one of midnight avarice, but rather one of love.

***

The broad lines of Ikey’s ascent can be quickly traced:

The family was part of the eighteenth-century migration of poor Ashkenazim from the ghettoes of Europe into the rookeries of London. The seamy purlieus of Whitechapel and Spitalfields were his nurseries of crime. At nine, he is launched onto the streets, a lemon-seller with sharp eyes, who runs with pickpockets, most often as a scout. At twenty-five, a late bloomer, he receives his first conviction, for the theft of a wallet, and graduates to the hulks. By this time, he is married to Ann Julian, whose father, like Ikey’s own, plies the receiver’s trade. After four years locked up on the Medway, Ikey is released and returns to set up shop as a ‘jeweller’ near Petticoat Lane. His house, though, has many cavities and locked doors; and Ikey soon emerges as one of the most astute assessors of stolen goods in London.

Business grows.

He now consorts with such colourful personalities as the expert house- breaker, Gompertz Alexander, and the celebrated pugilist, Abraham Belaxos. Eventually there is a raid and Ikey does a runner and then is invisible

for eleven months, until one spring morning an officer from the Lambeth Street Police Station somehow spots him walking in the sunlight down New North Road in Islington. Extraordinarily, he is apprehended.

Ikey was charged on thirteen counts. But this was just the warm up. For, on the day of his bail hearing, as the escorting hackney coach slowly rolled back to Newgate, Ikey executed a remarkable escape – jumping out the door and disappearing into an orchestrated throng. The turnkeys, one called Mr Smart, had, it seemed, been bribed and drugged; and the coach-driver was none other than Ikey’s father-in-law, Moses Julian. Ikey was soon spirited away to what seemed his natural destination, America, or more specifically, the Bowery in New York. But that alternative life never happened. Because, roused by the newspapers, the London constabulary went to work on the clan. First Ikey’s father, Henry, was convicted for theft. Then, a stolen watch was found ticking under the floorboards of the family home. His wife, Ann, the mother of six (possibly framed by Ikey’s brother Benjamin – the story gets complicated), was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. And now the incredible act follows. A fugitive from justice, facing capital charges, Ikey packs up in New York and boards a vessel for Van Diemen’s Land. He is sailing into an open prison. Many months later, after the inevitable arrest, he explains:

‘My reason for leaving America for Hobart Town’, he affirmed quite simply, ‘was solely to gain the society of an affectionate wife’.

***

There is a very short account of Ikey’s reunion with his wife. An eyewitness who knew him from London (Hobart was crawling with underworld associates) saw a man in the neighbour’s yard where Ann Solomon was assigned as a servant, and, as she put it, ‘Mrs Solomon was brushing his clothes’. ‘Is that not Ikey Solomon?’ a second convict asked, and she replied, ‘I rather suspect it is’.

Faced with such outrageousness, the local authorities were uncertain how
to proceed. Had Ikey Solomon been acquitted? What should be done? They sought advice from London. In the meantime, Ikey set up shop in the heart of Hobart using ‘portable property’ his elder sons had arrived with from London. The younger children were retrieved from an orphanage and the family briefly reunited (although Ann was targeted again and sent with her head shaven to the ‘Female Factory’ for a time). Ships to London then took six months, and then it was the wheels of government, then the return voyage. But when instructions finally arrived they were the predictable: Send him back.

Unlike Fagin who was hanged, Ikey was treated with remarkable leniency. He was never charged with escaping lawful custody, and at his trial, where, in the words of one pamphleteer, ‘every avenue was thronged almost to suffocation’, he was acquitted on all capital counts of ‘burglarious breaking and entering’. He was found guilty only of two fairly minor felonies, the receipt of ‘14 stolen watch movements’ and ‘twelve pieces of Valencia.’ He would be returned to Van Diemen’s Land.

But now the inevitable decline comes. Back in the penal colony, Ikey was in and out of various gaols and did not see his family for ve years. Cracks began to appear, including in Ikey’s agitated mind. Locked up at Port Ar- thur, that place of beauty and horror, he heard whispers Ann was dallying with a younger man. When, at last he was released and they met in the winter of 1835, accusations followed, denied by her and the children. ‘My father called my mother all the words that he could lay his tongue to,’ said a son, David. A daughter, Nancy, declared, ‘My mother was so ill she could not turn in bed’. There were rancourous exchanges, especially with these middle children, loyal to their mother, who had suffered most from her arrest and his absence and their own confinement. At one point, David seized his father by the neck and threw him in the street, with the words: ‘There you old bugger, lie there’. The magistrates became involved.

In all this, the tale has mutated beyond Dickens into something darker. There were reconciliations with the family and further ruptures. In the end, Ikey obtained his full freedom and ran a small cigar shop in central Hobart before dying in 1850, and being buried, as I had been told, in the old Jewish Cemetery, the eighth to be buried there.

***

The old Jewish burial ground indeed once lay down the hill from my door. But the last parcel of land, I discovered, had been bulldozed for a development quite recently. Going there I saw a security shop had been established in the vicinity, advertising locks, alarms, safes and CCTV cameras. I didn’t suppose that Ikey could still be there?

I arranged a visit to the Hobart Synagogue. It is the oldest place of Jewish worship in Australia and was founded in the 1840s by a small community of several hundred Jews, many of whom, like Ikey, were Londoners sent into exile ‘beyond the seas’. Ikey was a member of that first congregation. The synagogue itself is a small jewel of colonial architecture now buried in the city, the work of a convict draftsman with no formal training, neo-Egyptian in design. Here I met the keeper of the keys, a Mordechai O’Brien, and he let me in to see the cedar-wood interiors and the winter light coming in through the superb trapezoid windows. He told me the community was very small. There was no rabbi. Of the original population of largely London Jews most left for the vaster opportunities of Sydney or Melbourne or the faith lapsed.

I explained to Mordechai my interest. He confessed that Ikey was viewed with mixed feelings by the community. I said I thought he had a few re- deeming qualities. Mordechai then informed me that all the material from the old Jewish burial ground had been relocated to the Hobart General Cemetery on the Derwent estuary. Ikey’s family had a little money. There would have been a headstone, he thought. But he couldn’t say whether any trace remained.

As a final step I went to the Cemetery overlooking the mackerel-coloured waters of the Derwent sliding down to the sea. There inside a low wall of sandstone I found a small patch of ground dedicated to the relocated remains. A few old headstones were implanted in the wall. Most of the names were no longer legible. But on the sandstone had been placed, in pairs and clusters, small metal stars of David, cut from rusted steel, and on each a name had been inscribed in yellow. Here then was a record of the dead. And on one headstone I found a solitary rusted star. It bore the inscription: Isaac Solomon 65 years died 1850. So I took a stone and under that rusty star I placed it there.

By Konrad Muller 

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